“Forest Hills has become ‘Deforest Hills,’” a man shoveling snow remarks about the community he’s lived in for years. Pointing to his windows, the man says they remain constantly shut. Trees that used to absorb exhaust fumes along the road have been largely cut down, in apparent violation of city laws requiring greenery.
Despite his concern of the lack of trees, the man says he doesn’t complain to the Department of Buildings over the violations and chooses to remain anonymous when voicing his opinion.
“Honestly I’m not looking into getting into anyone’s kitchen; I wouldn’t want them to get into mine,” he said.
For community activists throughout Queens who feel that yard violations are becoming a creeping concern to their communities, getting into someone’s yard (as in their business) at least, is the only way to curb violations.
Who’s Violating What?
“Enforcement seems to be the bottleneck,” said Alex Blenkinsopp of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association about the slow response he says the city has on checking in on the violations.
For Blenkinsopp, implementing yard laws requiring greenery has been an ongoing struggle since the Yards Text Amendments was passed in 2008. Propelled by elected officials such as then-Councilman and now state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Whitestone), who were concerned about the quality of life and the stress to the environment in low-density neighborhoods, the laws restrict what a homeowner could do to his or her outside property.
Prior to the code changes, front yards were not required to be planted but with them, a certain percentage of greenery had to be planted based on square footage, with 20 percent for a yard less than 20 square feet and 50 percent for a yard 60 square feet or greater. The laws also addressed limiting the number of parking spaces, curb cuts and fence height.
Despite Blenkinsopp submitting several complaints to the DOB, which would issue the violations, he says their response is slow and not thorough enough.
One of his grievances over an allegedly illegal curb cut and driveway was dismissed altogether since at the time of inspection, “they couldn’t locate the illegal driveway, even though the resident had put a sign on his fence demanding that people not block his ‘driveway,’” he said.
A search on the DOB’s website of a block in Forest Hills known to many as home to “McMansions,” shows four other instances of investigations which were also “resolved” because no violations were found at the time of inspection for curb cuts. One complaint entered in October 2012 for illegal paving has yet to be inspected.
Blenkinsopp said he realizes the complaints aren’t high priority for the DOB but says he would happily assist in citing violations by taking photographs, for example.
But according to Kelly Magee, the DOB’s spokeswoman, an investigation would still have to take place. Residents can call 311 and track their complaints.
“The department works with members of local community boards, civic associations and elected officials on a regular basis to address issues if and when they arise,” Magee said.
Kew Gardens residents have also noted the prevalence of the problem within their communities.
Murray Berger, the executive chairman for the Kew Gardens Civic Association, called the issue of replacing green with cement, “a creeping abuse.”
A resident of Kew Gardens for 56 years, Berger said that he doesn’t think the Yards Text Amendment did much to curb the violations. Instead, he said, he has seen illegal modifications such as fences over 6 feet high only increase over the years.
For Sylvia Hack, who heads the Kew Gardens Improvement Association, the reason that residents continue to pave over their green space is because the law is too lax.
“Until someone higher up says, ‘Your fine is going to accumulate every single day,’ then they wouldn’t do it in the first place,” Hack says of how to better enforce the requirements.
As a longtime Kew Gardens resident, she has seen fines issued for violations ranging from excessive fence building to illegal use of a home for a commercial business but says most violators don’t change to adhere to what’s required of them. Especially for illegal businesses, she says, it’s cheaper to pay the violations than to register as a commercial operation.
On the other side of the equation, she criticized the involvement of the DOB, calling it a “joke” for what she sees as slow follow-up to civilian complaints.
Cement’s more manageable, So what’s the big deal?
“The water is running off and burdening the sewer lines and storm drains,” said Paul Graziano of North Flushing, an urban planning consultant who helped draft the text amendment. He explains that having green space helps to absorb the runoff.
When originally drafting the amendments, Graziano stressed that he advocated for an even greater percentage of required minimal green space. Requiring only 20 percent for 20 square feet is “kind of a joke” to him.
Donovan Finn, a professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Stony Brook University also stressed the capturing of rain water to prevent flooding. He said that while residents may feel that paving over their own lawn won’t be an issue, the problem emerges when everyone starts to do it.
“A part of the problem is that it seems like a win-win. You get a parking space out of it, don’t feel any personal pain as a result, but it’s really affecting the neighborhood and natural environment,” said Finn, who lives in Jackson Heights.
Another difficulty in promoting green lawns is that often, homeowners who may have recently moved into a house might not be aware that their property is in violation of the law. Additionally, while some may have been paved without a proper permit, there are also nonconforming driveways that were built prior to the adoption of the zoning text amendment and remain legal.
From a contractor’s perspective, architect John Cacagnile, said that since the passing of the amendment in 2008, his profession must adhere to the requirements. But, he also recognizes that many homeowners often feel overwhelmed with the law, which calls for such things as at least two trees being planted for every 50 square feet.
“In the beginning [people say], ‘Oh my God, it’s another thing.’ Over time, it gets absorbed,” Cacagnile says of the law. While he has seen homeowners having to rip up their cement, a few years later, they’re paving again.
With slow mobilization for inspection on ongoing violations, what other solutions might exist for concerned residents?
One suggestion listed in NYC’s Green Infrastructure Plan includes the use of permeable pavement such as some paving stones, which allows water to seep in, but still at a much lesser extent than soil — the “lesser evil,” according to Finn.
Another possible solution, as Margaret Finnerty, president of the Richmond Hill South Civic Association mentioned, at least to overdevelopment, is rezoning, such as was recently done for 530 blocks of southern Queens, which will keep the area to one- or two-family homes.
“That’s a big plus in my area,” said Finnerty, who, concerned with overdevelopment noted that the abundance of residents might have led to the need to create extra parking in the first place.
While no further amendments are in the works, Avella stressed that aggrieved constituents should not hesitate to bring their concerns to him, noting that residents shouldn’t think that what their neighbor does won’t affect them.
“If they see something, say something,” Avella said.